What’s Old is New Again
Original glass furnace reconstructed as a working replica to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Toledo Studio Glass Workshops.
Fifty years to the day after the first glass furnace fired up at the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA), three artists-in-residence recreated it—brick by brick—to reflect the spirit of early pioneers of the American Studio Glass Movement.
“Today, we take the glass furnace and studio for granted,” said Jeff Mack, glass studio manager, TMA. “You can walk into a studio with only a bag of your favorite tools and start making glass. In the early days, you needed a few more things because, if you wanted to make glass, the first matter of business was usually to build a furnace.”
The Toledo Workshop Revisited Residency took place March 22-31, mirroring Harvey Littleton and Dominick Labino’s original workshop that happened between March 23 and April 1 of 1962. Artists Kim Harty, Amber Cowan and Matthew Szösz began the residency with the construction of the furnace, as part of TMA’s Guest Artist Pavilion Project (GAPP), co-sponsored by The Robert M. Minkoff Foundation.
The rebuilt furnace operated beside one of TMA’s new state-of-the-art Wet Dog furnaces, which arrived at the museum shrink-wrapped on a pallet with no assembly required. Mack calls it a literal illustration of how far the studio movement has progressed with furnace technology over the past 50 years. “We have really come a long way, and the growth, development and specializations that have evolved are a testament to the evolution of the studio glass movement,” he said.
“This project revisits the early struggles that had great impact on the appearance of the works made at that time, both in terms of materials and technology,” said Jutta Page, curator of glass and decorative arts, TMA. “It’s exciting to see the past brought to life as a visual symbol of how glass has flourished as an art medium and the collections it inspires.”
“The foundation approached the Toledo Museum of Art with the idea of rebuilding the furnace because we wanted to focus attention on the institution’s important role as the birthplace of studio glass,” said Robert Minkoff, managing trustee, the Robert M. Minkoff Foundation. “We were looking for a novel way to give a new generation of artists who may not have been aware of all the history a sense of the challenges faced by the founders. It is our hope that this residency will offer each of the three artists the opportunity to create significant work that relates to the spirit of exploration and daring that defined the first Toledo workshop.”
Since there are no known renderings of the first furnace, replicating the design was a challenge in itself. Extensive research was needed to recreate it, relying heavily on interviews and photographs taken at the 1962 workshops.
“Most of the basic materials are pretty much the same today: insulating firebrick, standard firebrick, a burner block, a Johnson burner and some steel elements to hold it all together,” Mack said. The key difference is that this furnace will have a flame sensor on the burner for safety.
The original 1962 furnace wasn’t used again after the first workshop; rather, it was reconfigured and modified for the second workshop, which took place in June that year.
“The studio furnace began evolving from the moment it was built,” said Mack. “Artists build the furnaces to meet their individual needs. But today, because of the proliferation of the studio glass movement, there are now companies wholly devoted to building furnaces and glass studio equipment. Artists can now focus on their craft because someone else is focusing on creating the perfect furnace.”
The rebuilt furnace will be used exclusively by the artists-in-residence to work molten glass. It’s a tool, but also a starting point for their work while at TMA. Each artist was chosen because of the conceptual quality and inquisitive nature of his or her work.
“The Minkoff Foundation wanted to connect a new generation of artists who directly experiment with glass with the pioneers of studio glass,” said Andrew Page, director of the Minkoff Foundation. “Amber, Kim and Matthew submitted proposals that reflect thoughtful responses to the history of the 1962 workshops, with an excitement about the potential for glass and a fascination with the material. Each in their own way, these three artists embody the ethos of the first workshop exceptionally well. It is a unique opportunity to celebrate the history and the future of glass at the same time.”
“These young artists can look back at 50 years of intense development of art in glass, and it will be exciting to see how they approach these early experimental technologies with a fresh viewpoint,” said Jutta Page. “It will forever change the way they approach their craft.”